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Two trips to Cuba

The following account covers two trips to Cuba. The first was a two-week trip in late January and early February 2007 and the second a one week trip in November 2015. In both cases I only bought a flight ticket from Iceland and then traveled on my own in Cuba. The flight time from Iceland was about 9 hours, with a stopover in Halifax for fuel on the way out but a straight flight on the way back. These were charter flights, the first with the travel agency Heimsferđir, the second with Vita Travel. The following description is based on this personal experience, together with knowledge from books, accounts by interesting travelers the author has met and, most importantly, information gathered from the locals themselves. This text should widen the reader's knowledge and give insights, some of which are not found in the customary travel books which are an important companion when traveling in Cuba.

The island of Cuba is 111 000 sq. km and has almost 12 million inhabitants, of whom roughly 2 500 000 live in Havana. 

„The two girls in Trinidad in Central Cuba asked me for one or two Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). Such requests are so common that I found them a little wearisome. The girls said they would use the money to buy food.  I took them to a supermarket and bought them two liters of vegetable oil and some soap.  This cost 1.75 CUC which is about 1/12 of a worker's monthly salary! The girls were very grateful for this and for the candy I gave them as well.“

The flight, travel agencies etc.
The ticket for the flight in 2015 was bought only four days prior to departure with Vita Travel so the price was rather good. However the info provided at Vita's website was lacking as regarded times and other details of the flight. The time difference between Iceland and Cuba was said to be four hours instead of five. The ladies at the sales office were helpful but not very knowledgeable about Cuba.

On the whole, travels in Cuba are pleasant and informative. They offer adventure and possibly some ideological remedies as well, both for radical left wingers as well as those furthest to the right in politics. What mainly stands out is how good, cheerful, smiling and helpful most Cubans were that I met on my travels.

Travel story – roughly
In 2007 my first three nights were at a 5-star resort in Varadero, followed by five nights in  private homes (so called "casa particulare") in Havana, four nights in Trinidad and finally two nights in a 3-star hotel in Varadero. The stay at the hotels in Varadero was “all inclusive” – all food and drinks were included.  I took the bus to Havana and went on excursion tours from Havana and Trinidad. On the seven day trip in 2015, I spent the first three nights in Havana and then four days in Varadero, in private homes in both cases. Of the many people I met, the most interesting were those who were traveling on their own. You are never completely on your own in Cuba as it is very easy to approach locals and other tourists for chats. Many of the travelers I met were going to South America afterwards. 

The people
One of the interesting things in Cuba is the mixture of races: white (e. blanco), black (negro) and mixed (mulattos). The racial harmony and equality surpasses anything I have seen on my visits to 50 countries. The people are somehow pure-hearted, perhaps because of little experience of other countries, having seldom or never been abroad or had the “privilege” of the internet, Wi-Fi and other amenities that we are used to. 

Important things to understand in Cuba are the currency, monthly salaries and the extremely low purchasing power. The national currency is the Cuban peso, but tourists have to use CUC - Cuban Convertible (dollars), created by the Cubans to counter the overflow of US dollars!

1 CUC equals around 1.03 euros in Dec. 2015, or about 0.86 US dollars.
1 CUC equals around 25 Cuban pesos.

A common monthly salary is 500-600 Cuban pesos, or only 20-25 CUC/euros.  A worker in a plant makes about 400 Cuban pesos, an engineer about 700 Cuban pesos and a doctor 800 Cuban Pesos a month.  This equals around 15–40 euros per month!  These people manage, however, as the government hands out a few kilos of rice, beans, wheat, milk for babies, etc. One local said that this was sufficient for 3 weeks. It also helps that people don’t seem to pay any house rent.

It is possible to use a few Cuban pesos to buy things on the street, like pizzas, sandwiches and local bus rides The ice cream is quite good, so expect a queue.  For their 500 Cuban pesos the locals can buy 90 low quality pizzas on the street, and probably more bananas than you get for your monthly salary in Western Europe. If they changed their monthly salary into CUC, they could buy only 15-20 beers in a bar!  This explains why you seldom see the locals spend money in bars, unless invited by tourists,  which I would recommend.  If you invite a local to dinner and drinks you will easily spend in one evening the equivalence of his monthly salary.

Not surprisingly, many like to stay around tourists and try to help them, but they often expect one CUC in exchange. Those who work in tourism are often better off, as they frequently receive tips and gifts. It is best to bring euros or Canadian dollars to Cuba, rather than US dollars. Most banks take an extra 5-10% commission fee for changing US dollars.  Credit Cards are accepted at hotels and bigger restaurants and shops, but an extra 3 -10% charge is put on payments or withdrawal with credit cards.  

There are hotels in all cities but most independent travelers stay with Cuban families in a “casa particular”.  The price is usually around 25-45 CUC for a  room with two single beds or one double. I paid 35 CUC in 2015 in Havana and 25 in Varadero. Breakfast costs 3-5 CUC per person.  This usually contains 2-3 kinds of fruit, eggs, a rather poor quality bread and good coffee.  You can sometimes buy dinner at a casa particular for 7-10 CUC.  Many Cuban families have obtained a license for those “guesthouses” from the government, but they have to pay tax which is around 400 CUC a month!  Each house is only allowed to rent out two rooms for guests. You will be asked for a passport in these houses when you register.
In 2015 I stayed with a nice Cuban family in Havana in Centro Havana (many prefer old Havana, though). The location was O.K, around 20 minutes walk from the sea (Malicon street). The room was clean and spacious with bathroom and TV. It was a little noisy though, being on a busy street. The couple were friendly, their language skill was fair and they had two daughters living at home, in their early twenties, the older one married. The younger one had the day off on my first day there so luckily she showed me around in old Havana. I paid all expenses, of course, including meals and admission charges which are often lower or free for Cubans.?Info: Maritza Carlos III / 1057 e/ Luaces Y Almendares, email:

I didn’t reserve my accommodation in Varadero but walked around in the village after the 20 CUC / 2 hours shared taxi trip there. I chose to stay in the center of the village on a street called 42. The price was good, only 25 CUC. The room was rather private with access to a kitchen and bathroom. The owners, a couple in their fifties, were friendly and helpful.“No problem“ was the common answer from the husband, a former electrician. The breakfast was good, better than the one in Havana, but also more expensive at 5 CUC.?Info: Mercy & Robe, 2da Ave. e/ 41 y 42, No. 4106 Altos, Varadero.

The food
The quality of food ranged from low to quite good but the dishes were usually very basic.  The locals eat a lot of rice and beans so this comes with most meals.  In the resorts, all food is included and the food is O.K., plentiful at least, but you will most probably get a little tired of it after a few days.  The best meal I had was in Trinidad (in 2007), a lobster meal, served by a family where I stayed. It was very good and the price only 10 CUC.  Do try lobster if you stay in Trinidad or at some restaurant – many serve this dish.  One should ask for a reduced cooking time, as there is a tendency to overcook most food in Cuba.

The restaurants that I tried were all a bit similar and none outstanding. Fried chicken or pork with rice and beans and some vegetables is the most common main course with prices ranging from 5-8 CUC.  A common price for beer is 2 CUC. The only restaurant that I would recommend (being a restaurant writer who appreciates good price for money) is in street 15 in Varadero, next to the beach. The place is almost free of tourists and you can have fine local food, choosing between fish, chicken and pork and a glass of juice for only 3 CUC.

See the Lonely planet or other travel books for more information about food.

Things to buy
The best things to buy in Cuba are certain souvenirs, like paintings, rum and of course Cuban cigars. For big paintings you need a special receipt which you might have to show at the airport, for the artist has to pay a 37% tax to the government.


In 2007 I arrived with a bus from Varadero after a 2½ hour bus ride, an innocent Icelander, and was soon hustled by a guy “yes I show you very good casa particular in the center”.  That home was O.K., but of course it was too expensive and after one night I moved to “Mama” (see pic. above) in the same building. The city is quite charming although most of the buildings are in disrepair and the city in many places quite dirty.  After a while, however, you get over a certain threshold and start getting used to this.  One could say that you have to unfreeze and get out of the box of what you are used to. Mingling with the locals will help you to do so. On my second trip the city was cleaner and many new buildings under construction. The "hop on hop off" for 5 CUC is a fine option for a day or part of a day, although the stops are not particularly interesting. A walk in the old center is a must. I visited the revolutionary museum which is moderately interesting. A walk at the Malacon street stretching 7 km by the beach is also a good idea.

Varadero  - This is a 19 km long, quite narrow peninsula with some 5000 inhabitants and a village in the middle. It has numerous all inclusive resorts, mainly near the middle  and towards the ends. I stayed there a few nights in 2007 and again in 2015. It is quite touristic so the prices and quality are higher than in the rest of the country.  A good place for relaxation and fun in bars and nightclubs. I rented a scuba (25-30 CUC a day) for use most of the time on both visits and would  recommend a trip to Santa Marta, 5 km away with 12000 inhabitants There you will find a real Cuban village, very different from the rather artificial Varadero.  

Trinidad – A village I visited in 2007 in middle/east Cuba, about 3-4 hours east of Varadero. This place is getting quite popular with tourists and is well worth recommending for two nights or so, judging by my 2007 experience. Some nice beaches are located a few kilometers from the village.

Pina del rio – Vinales -  A nice valley with villages which can by visited on a day trip from Havana, which I did. I tried riding on a local horse – a unique experience.

Santiago di Cuba – This is Cuba's second biggest city and the “capital” of the east, more than 800 km away from Havana. It has over 400 000 inhabitants, predominantly black. It is hot there and so is the dance and the music according to most reports. 

The revolutionary Che Guevara is a national hero.  Wherever you go you see big posters of him, pictures on walls, books about him, not to forget all the T-shirts for tourists.  Most Cubans seem to have a very favorable attitude towards him, as their hero. Many seem to like Castro, though one could rather say that people have respect for him. I once asked a girl if she was a communist.  She said "No, I am a Fidelist – Castro gave me a good education".  This is an example of how proud many Cubans are of their free education and health system, not necessarily realizing that in some western countries this is almost the case as well. When one gets to know Cubans better, however, they reveal their struggle for life and food and often admit that this Castro worship is a kind of brainwashing, although they respect what he did in the past.

Of course, many dream of a changed and freer society, especially young people and those who are much in contact with tourists. They see the western world in a shining luster.  The old people who experienced the inequality before the revolution in 1959, are not as eager for changes and seem to be more content with the current situation, as they remember the old times.  I often used the phrase "Viva Cuba" to locals, which they liked, and sometimes "Viva Castro" or Che.  A third phrase “Viva Bush” did not score high at all in 2007, as the former US leader had been demonized in the media.

Of course Cuba is for us Westerners an intolerably closed country with heavy bureaucracy and like a prison in many ways.  But if you don’t have experience of anything else, it may be a good place to live, where all races, white, black and mulattos live together without any discernible tension, forever dancing to the Cuban rhythm you hear on every street corner. 

Additional information
Tips and reviews for hotels and services in Cuba:
Here you can reserve a room for "casa particular":


  • It is useful to know some Spanish if you are traveling around, especially if you are alone. Take a tourist dictionary with you, like the Lonely Planet Guide to Spanish.
  • It is advise able get acquainted with locals who can show you around and tell you about various things you would otherwise miss. You should show them the courtesy of paying for meals and drinks, and you might also be asked for a few pesos as well, especially if you don’t know the person well.
  • Bring some pens, small things for children, notebooks, old watches or mobiles, clothes, perfume / eau de toilette testers etc. to give people (or even trade with the mobile). This is much appreciated.  Don’t be surprised if you are asked for the T-shirt or watch you are wearing, possibly in exchange for something else.
  • Bring euros or Canadian dollars.
  • Buy some candy such as caramels in supermarkets and give children in the street and adults you meet.
  • It might be a good idea to start and/or end the trip in Varadero for 1-3 nights to get accustomed to Cuba, and to cool down and rest before the trip home.
  • I recommend hiring a scooter (approx. 25 CUC for 24 hours).
  • It is advisable to choose people yourself when asking for directions and information, rather than having someone pick you out. It is more likely that the latter will expect money or bring you to a friend’s restaurant or guesthouse, getting a commission that will be added to your bill.

Author: Hakon Thor Sindrason, March 2007 and updated December 2015.

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